Newly elected president George Washington set out to visit the new nation aware that he was the singular unifying figure in America.
The journey's finale was the Southern Tour, starting in March 1791. The long and arduous trek from the capital, Philadelphia, passed through seven states and the future Washington, D.C. But the focus was on Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The president kept a rigorous schedule, enduring rugged roads and hazardous water crossings. His highly anticipated arrival in each destination was celebrated with countless teas, parades, dinners and dances. Author Warren Bingham reveals the history and lore of the most beloved American president and his survey of the newly formed southern United States.
About the Author
Warren L. Bingham is a writer, speaker and broadcaster with a deep interest in Southern history and lore. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and of Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, Bingham lives in North Carolina with his wife Laura and a couple of hounds.
Read an Excerpt
Great Man and Frequent Traveler
In the spring of 1791, President George Washington traveled round-trip from Philadelphia to Georgia. The trip of nearly 1,900 miles was possibly the longest overland trip made in the history of the American states to that time. But the first president was not seeking any sort of travel record; he had other things in mind. The high mileage came with his mission: a proper visit to the southern states.
I first heard of Washington's Southern Tour in a history class during my senior year at UNC–Chapel Hill when William Powell, a renowned scholar of North Carolina history, shared several anecdotes on Washington's passage through my home state of North Carolina. As Powell told stories of Washington's stops in places I knew, such as Charlotte, Salisbury and Wilmington, George Washington came alive.
Until this revelation, I found George Washington to be so remote and from such another time that he seemed more mythical than real — think Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack of folklore. But when I visualized a tired, aching and nearly sixty-year-old Washington plugging away on a long journey that passed within fifty miles of my hometown, he became human and flesh and blood. For me, George Washington was for sure a living, breathing heroic action figure. Since that day in college, I have been fascinated with the first president and his famed Southern Tour.
For his singular leadership in the establishment of the United States of America, Washington is known as the father of this country. Though his life remains celebrated today, it is important to grasp that Washington was truly a remarkable legend in his own time — and his time was exclusively of the eighteenth century. He died in his home, Mount Vernon, at age sixty-seven in mid-December 1799.
Washington's achievements were magnanimous. As commander in chief, he led the Continental army to victory over the British in the American Revolution, then he presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and, finally, he established the presidency, setting the style and standards for the office. For nearly a quarter of a century, George Washington was the most prominent American, a hero at home and around the world.
George Washington was a dignified man who generally maintained a military bearing. Sometimes he could be formal, aloof and stern, believing that familiarity bred contempt and disrespect. Washington kept his emotional distance from almost everyone. No one called him George; he was General Washington even to his wife, Martha.
Despite his reserved style and personality, a distinctive aspect of Washington's presidency was the vigor with which he connected with the American people. The president and his wife each held weekly receptions, or levees, to receive the public, leaders and elected officials. President Washington and his family often rode on horseback or in a carriage out among the people. And just over two years after becoming president, Washington had visited all thirteen states, a momentous accomplishment given the travel challenges of the time.
Until the twentieth century, Washington indeed saw more of what was his United States than did any other president. During his life as a surveyor, real estate speculator, Virginia militia officer, commander of the American army and a public servant for his state and country, he saw the colonies and states like few others of his time. The old saw "George Washington slept here" is trite, but it is often true. For example, according to one of his biographers, Washington slept in 280 houses during the Revolution alone.
To sleep in so many places required Washington to be on the move, and he was in steady circulation via a variety of conveyances from his mid-teens until his retirement from the presidency in 1797 at age sixty-five. He walked; rode horses; boarded ships, boats and rafts; paddled canoes; and settled into a variety of wheeled carts and carriages. His travels not only took him to the first thirteen states but also to parts of the future states of Maine, Ohio, West Virginia and, likely, Vermont.
Almost all of Washington's travels were confined to the footprint of colonial America; unlike many of the gentlemen of his era, he never traveled to Europe, not even to his ancestral homeland of England. Perhaps if his father had not died when Washington was only eleven, George would have been sent to England for school like his elder half-brothers.
But Washington's opportunities to travel abroad were limited by financial and practical circumstances related to responsibilities to his widowed mother, Mary, and to his siblings. Not only did he not go to England for school, but his mother also refused to let him see the world by joining Britain's Royal Navy. American history might be very different if it were not for Mary Ball Washington's obstinacy on keeping her son out of the British navy.
Washington's only trip outside his country was a visit to Barbados, a voyage taken in 1751 at age nineteen with his half-brother, Lawrence, who was nearly fourteen years older than George. Lawrence was not well, a sufferer of tuberculosis seeking relief in what was considered the therapeutic Caribbean climate. George idolized Lawrence, who had been essentially a surrogate father, and he readily agreed to accompany his brother. The brothers were not on spring break; in fact, they left during the fall.
The Washington brothers were away nearly four months, counting rough ocean voyages both ways. The outcome of the trip was mixed: Lawrence's health did not improve, and George contracted smallpox. By the trip's end, George had survived and was forever immune from the pox (a disease that later ravaged his Continental army), and for the first time, he experienced a truly new land, new soil, new vegetation and different customs and manners. And he saw the theater for the first time, which would remain a lifelong interest. This was Washington's only opportunity to do what we now call "study abroad."
During the next three to four decades, Washington grew from young man to American hero. From Lawrence, he inherited the estate, Mount Vernon, greatly improving it. He married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis and became guardian of her two children. During the American Revolution, Martha proved to be a remarkable and resilient mate for the on-the-go Washington, often joining him in army camps.
Though Washington was neither worldly nor formally educated and had neither visited European capitals nor sailed the distant seas, thanks to his domestic exploits, fine character and good fortune, he was elected the first president of the United States.
Wearing a simple brown suit of wool spun by a Connecticut manufacturer, George Washington, the consummate American, was sworn in as president on April 30, 1789. The inauguration was staged on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan in New York City, the temporary seat of the U.S. government. George and Martha, the much celebrated Virginians, settled in New York.
Just days after taking the oath of office, the new president signaled his intention to visit the thirteen states. In a letter to Vice President John Adams dated May 10, 1789, Washington outlined nine points about the presidency, requesting Adams's consideration and thoughts. Point eight read:
Whether, during the recess of Congress, it would not be advantageous to the interests of the Union for the President to make the tour of the United States, in order to become better acquainted with their principal characters & internal circumstances, as well as to be more accessible to numbers of well-informed persons, who might give him useful informations and advices on political subjects.
Shrewd and practical, Washington was well aware of his considerable popularity and influence. Touring the states would allow him to meet the American people and to see their circumstances while promoting the Constitution and new federal government. Historian Richard Norton Smith calls Washington's presidential touring an effort "to see and be seen." Additionally, it would provide the physical exercise that he relished and allow him to get away from the office. After all, Washington was an outdoorsman, a surveyor, a soldier and a farmer.
Except, perhaps, in his role as a military officer, George Washington did not especially inspire or captivate audiences with words. Unlike, say, Franklin, Jefferson and Madison, he did not espouse great thoughts or philosophy in either spoken or written form, but Washington literally stood out in a crowd. Standing nearly six feet and three inches, he was not vanilla. Washington had presence, and he knew it. His influence was certainly enhanced simply by being there.
Though Washington surely wanted to see the country and learn more about its land, activities and people, he also wanted to assert the power and influence of the new federal government. The Constitution was untested and still unpopular with many, particularly among the less powerful and affluent. Washington aspired to rally all Americans to the new government.
After years of British control, erased only by a long and tumultuous war, Americans were generally distrustful of government. The concept of being a United States citizen was not easily grasped by the masses; their personal loyalty went first to their family, then to their locality and, finally, to the state. People needed assurance that their new federal government was, at least, generally benign if not beneficial.
In his tours of the states, Washington carried the nation's flag to the American people. His presence at once projected both federal strength and national unity. There was no one better to do this than George Washington, the hero of the Revolution. For Americans both north and south, George Washington was their common denominator, a trusted man, a great unifier.
I am unsure how Vice President Adams responded to the president's proposed travel notion, but Washington did indeed visit all of the states. George Washington was a man of action.
Washington accomplished his thirteen-state travel venture in three big trips, plus a side trip to Rhode Island. Ultimately, Washington's passage from Mount Vernon to New York City for his inauguration in April 1789 proved to largely satisfy his appearance in the middle states: Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. Along the way, Washington was seemingly surprised at the ceremonial recognition and adulation at stops in Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Elizabethtown and New York City.
The following fall, Washington staged a tour of New England with stops in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution, so Washington excluded the small state from his itinerary. By the summer of 1790, Rhode Island finally joined the Union when its cautious leaders had gained assurance that a Bill of Rights would be a part of the Constitution. To pay his respects to the thirteenth state, Washington sailed from New York up the Long Island Sound in August 1790 to approach Rhode Island from its Atlantic Coast. Ironically, the smallest state was the only state that rated an express trip by the president. Little Rhody even enjoyed a bonus high-ranking visitor, Thomas Jefferson, who was then secretary of state.
The ink was barely dry on Rhode Island's endorsement of the Constitution when the national capital moved from New York City to Philadelphia during the fall of 1790. Congress had designated the City of Brotherly Love, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were crafted, to be the temporary national capital until 1800, by which time a permanent seat of government, a new federal district, would be identified and prepared.
In March 1791, Washington launched his last swing through the states from present-day Center City, Philadelphia. The Southern Tour, as it became known, was the longest trip, stretching to Georgia by way of Virginia and the Carolinas. It marked Washington's first ever visit to a state south of Virginia, the only exception being Washington's probable visit within North Carolina's portion of the Great Dismal Swamp while on surveying expeditions during the 1760s.
The Great Dismal exists today and remains impressive, but it has been significantly altered, drained and reduced in size during the last 225 years. In Washington's day, it was a behemoth, daunting and wild wetland straddling the border between southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.
Regardless of where Washington tramped and floated within the isolated swamp, it would hardly constitute a worthy visit to North Carolina. One legend goes that during his time in the Great Dismal, Washington may have spent a night or two at Eagle Tavern in Hertford, North Carolina, but such a stay is undocumented.
At times, Washington's tours were simple, understated affairs with limited fanfare and protocol, but on occasion, and especially in the larger communities, aspects of Washington's presidential visits resembled an English Royal Progress, those occasions when traveling monarchs got out among their people, toured the country and were honored lavishly and, well, royally.
During the Southern Tour, Washington was fêted and celebrated in myriad ways — bells pealed, cannons fired, parades rolled, toasts were offered and dinners and dances sometimes went late into the night. Leading the ceremonies and entertainment were elected officials, militia and their officers and two organizations of which Washington was a member, the Freemasons and the Society of the Cincinnati, the latter being the military officers of the Revolution. Less privileged citizens were exposed to the president, too. Likely awed by the mere prospect, they lined the dusty roads and pushed through crowded town centers when news came of George Washington's presence in town.
But the journey was not all grand and glorious. The entourage faced many challenges inherent to travel during the early American republic. They endured rutted and blocked roads and suffered from heat, choking dust and drenching rain. Routes and directions were confusing, and signs were few and far apart, but well-meaning local guides and ceremonial escorts sometimes slowed the entourage and served to stir up dust with their horses' hooves.
Crossing water was time consuming and dangerous. On occasion, at the end of long, tough days, Washington was resigned to stay in poor lodgings. In general, the roads and public taverns were worse in the South than elsewhere in the country. The president worried constantly about the condition and welfare of his horses — his transportation. Some days were simply monotonous and tiring.
Washington's cavalcade was small but impressive as it rolled along over the clay and sand of the South. The appearance of Washington's gleaming white carriage pulled by four horses was a head-turner. The entourage included a baggage wagon pulled by two horses. At least four other well-kept steeds came along as spare mounts, including Washington's tall white charger Prescott.
Eight men made the trip — a ninth started the journey but took ill and made it no farther than Mount Vernon. The coachman and attendants were dressed in red livery, while President Washington and his traveling secretary, William Jackson, dressed as gentlemen, sometimes in their military uniforms. Jackson, a South Carolinian, was an officer during the Revolution and had first served Washington as secretary of the Constitutional Convention. Among several secretaries on the president's staff, Jackson had already traveled with Washington on the tour through New England.
The Southern Tour kept the president away from Philadelphia for three and a half months. During the trip, Washington paid two visits to Mount Vernon; saw parts of seven states; established the site of the future Washington, D.C.; traveled from sea level to nearly one thousand feet in elevation; visited with five governors; and saw a number of battlegrounds of the Revolution.
In his presidential travels, George Washington gained an education from the land and the people, and from his presence, the people gained a sense of being Americans. The price of uniting the nation required considerable time and patience from its president, along with his endurance of saddle sores and choking dust.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "George Washington's 1791 Southern Tour"
Copyright © 2016 Warren L. Bingham.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 George Washington: Great Man and Frequent Traveler 13
2 Me and Washington's Southern Tour 23
3 The President Plans the Southern Tour 33
4 Going South: Center City, Philadelphia, to North Carolina 41
5 Through the Carolina?' Coastal Plain to Charleston 61
6 Onward to Savannah and Augusta 87
7 Going North from Georgia: Augusta to Mount Vernon 97
8 Mount Vernon to Philadelphia 119
9 Reflections on the Southern Tour 125
Suggested Readings 137
About the Author 143